Another service which tries to bridge IM and SMS. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be incredibly hard to provide a good user experience at scale. SMS is mostly asynchronous while IM is not. It becomes hard to use IM if you don’t have some sort of control over the latency of the messages, and only a very brave person would claim that they can guarantee message latencies in mobile networks. Even if you imagine for a moment that a service has the capacity required to push messages into an operator’s network at the rate in which they are generated (which is highly unlikely considering the cost), there is no guarantee that they’ll make it to the handset on the other end in time. SMS uses a store and forward process like e-mail, and shares some of the same characteristics. It is simply not a reliable medium for time sensitive communication.
In a purely SMS based service, it goes without saying that the end users should be able to reach the service reliably via the same medium. Making that happen isn’t very easy. At MyToday, most of our approx. 4 million users interact with our services via SMS. It is through the usual short codes and virtual numbers, more commonly called long codes. Long codes are 10 digit numbers similar to our phone numbers and make it cheaper for end users to reach us and are more popular. It’s understandable as most people wouldn’t want to spend Rs. 3 sending an SMS to a short code, especially if a service involves sending lots of messages.
Our growth has been mostly via word of mouth. So, when users like our service and want to tell their friends and family about it, having a non-changing long code is very important. But, it’s something we haven’t been able to ensure. Not because of lack of effort, but due to circumstances beyond our control. All short and long codes are owned by operators (much like our phone numbers) and leased to service providers. Though our services are opt-in, our long codes have been blocked multiple times by the operator we had leased it from. I’m not sure what the reason for the latest blockage is or if it has even been communicated to us, but, it is sometimes because of complaints from a few users that we are sending them unsolicited messages.
The obvious question is how that can happen when we claim to be an opt-in service. The problem is with the churn that happens in the operator’s user base. If a user with a particular phone number belonging to operator A subscribes to our service, and then migrates to different operator B, stops paying his bill etc. after some time, he stops being a customer of operator A. The phone number will now be assigned to a new subscriber by operator A within a short period of time. This new user hasn’t subscribed to our service and thinks we are spamming him when we continue to send messages. The ideal solution is that service providers need to know when a phone number is assigned to a different user, but there haven’t been reliable ways of getting that information. With churn rates at 6-7% among GSM operators as per an article from Mint, and overall churn rates of 3-5% (a number quoted by a speaker at MoMo Monsoon), and with the growth rates we are seeing in India, I imagine the operators are under pressure to reuse numbers as and when they become available, but there has to be a better way to share that information.
The partial graph above shows what impact a blockage can have. Our then popular long code 9845298452 was blocked some time late on 8th Oct or early in the day on 9th Oct and our users could not reach us at all and there was a massive fall in incoming messages. We got a new number immediately and started using that. One of the first things we did was to inform all our users that they could stop receiving our messages if they so wished using the new number. Some of them did and that is what the spike on the 16th represents. As we are an opt-in service, users opting out is generally a very small number compared to our overall user base, but something they can always do. Now, we are actively losing new users as they can’t reach our service using the popular long code. We have to start the process of making new long codes popular among our user base from scratch, not to mention handling all the support requests.
This may stop being an issue once number portability comes in, as users will retain a number once they get it and re-assignment of phone numbers won’t happen that often. The real solution though is better regulation and dispute resolution mechanisms. There is no incentive for operators to create an ecosystem which promotes innovation in the mobile space and neither is it their job. Unless they are forced to do it, smaller players who are trying to build services that end users want will spend more time dealing with issues like these and engineering their way around the latest obstacle rather than focusing their energy only on what is good for the user. Till that day comes, the cat and mouse games continue!
- This blog and many of my projects, code, svn etc. are hosted on a virtual private server at Slicehost. I started using them a couple of months after they launched their services two years ago. I had come off some bad experiences with shared hosting and was looking for a VPS. I’m not sure why I thought everything would be ok with Slicehost as they had no track record, but, they just seemed to get it. Well, I’ve been hosting with them for two years now and couldn’t be happier. They’ve now been acquired by Rackspace, a much larger player. Congratulations are in order. As a user I’ve rarely been in touch with them. That’s good! It means everything just works. Hopefully, that won’t change when they join a bigger company. (View Comments)
Google just launched a labs project called SMS Channels. Seems very similar to what we’re doing with MyToday. What a coincidence…
I think it had to happen at some point considering the numbers we have. But, I wouldn’t really conclude that Google is taking on MyToday with this labs launch. My guess is that this is a 20% project and not a “let’s crush these midgets” type strategic move. Many Google products are born from 20% projects, so you never know how far they’ll take it. Either way, competition is always good and the attractiveness of the space got validated some more. Of course, whether competiton from Google is good is open to debate.
Update: Rajesh has posted an interview he gave on the competition from Google.
I’ve always been very interested in the history of the technology industry. An integral part of that history are the stories of the entrepreneurs who have successfully built the companies whose services we use or have heard about. Founders at Work is the first book in the “how they did it” genre of books that I read. There is a lot of wisdom to be gleaned from the experiences of people who have been successful at something, and Founders at Work did not disappoint. Though each journey is unique in its own way and there is never a recipe for success, irrespective of how one might define it, some qualities do come through. Some of my take aways were the perseverance, never give up attitude and realisation that one needs to constantly put themselves outside their zone of comfort to achieve something out of the ordinary. If it was easy, everyone would do it. Of course, some luck helps too.
I read Founders at Work some time last year, but pulled it out again after I came across two books in the same genre today. One is Entrepreneur Journeys by Sramana Mitra, and the other is Stay Hungry Stay Foolish by Rashmi Bansal. I’ve been reading their blogs for a long time now, and should enjoy the books too. But, they aren’t available on Flipkart (my online bookstore of choice these days), or a few other online stores I looked at. I’ll definitely keep an eye out though.
All the posts about results from 23andme in the last few months reminded me of a DNA analysis project by the National Geographic Society. The Genographic project is collecting data about the migratory history of the human species. It tries to determine how people ended up where they currently are from their origins in Africa (the ancestry of every human on earth can be traced back to Africa, according to the project). They had invited the general public to participate by buying a kit, and sending their DNA sample. In return, they would provide details about the origins of the participants and details of their haplogroup. Ever the willing participant in such experiments, my father had sent his DNA sample sometime in 2006 and received the results. I went back to the site to look at the results again recently in light of the renewed interest in DNA analysis.
The most interesting data obviously is the migration path from Africa, which is illustrated by the image below:
I’ll just quote from the Genographic Project report for more details about the haplogroup itself.
Your Y-chromosome results identify you as a member of haplogroup J2.
The genetic markers that define your ancestral history reach back roughly 60,000 years to the first common marker of all non-African men, M168, and follow your lineage to present day, ending with M172, the defining marker of haplogroup J2, and also with the markers M47 (J2a), M12 (J2e), M67 (J2f), and M92 (J2f1).
From what I understand, haplogroups are a way of identifying branches in the human family tree, going all the way back to Africa 60,000 years ago, based on the mutations of the Y-chromosome that is passed from father to son. More details about the haplogroup J2 from Wikipedia. So, how did my ancestors migrate to south India?
If you look at the map highlighting your ancestors’ route, you will see that members of haplogroup J2 carry the following Y-chromosome markers:
M168 > M89 > M304 > M172
Today, descendants of this line appear in the highest frequencies in the Middle East, North Africa, and Ethiopia, and at a much lower frequency in Europe, where it is observed exclusively in the Mediterranean area. Approximately 20 percent of the males in southern Italy carry the marker, along with ten percent of men in southern Spain.
So, most members of the haplogroup J2 migrated to the middle-east, Northern Africa and Southern Europe, but one of my ancestors separated from them at some point (maybe he was banished from the tribe ). Or, maybe many of them headed in a different direction.
One thing I’ve realised from what I’ve been reading is that genetics is a fascinating area of science, with the prospects for the future being both scary and very interesting.
AÂ globally successful site built out of India in the last few years we can all be proud ofÂ (apart from Zoho)Â is SlideShare. It does one thing really well. Sharing slide shows. But, it looks like Google has taken a first step in competing with them. Of course, SlideShare does so much more at this point, but with a lot of Google products becoming “social” (like Reader), you never know. I guess it’s time for the SlideShare guys to put their heads down toÂ out-innovate them, because there is no way a 16K people company with all their bureaucracy is going toÂ keep upÂ with a motivated start up. All the best to Amit and team.
- We need to pass a law banning the use of the term Web 2.0 by people who have no clue about the meaning. The term is so abused that even people who know what it means shouldn’t use it, but the people at Techtree who wrote this article on BigAdda don’t know that. Even if you ignore the fact that it is a blatant copy paste of a press release which is being passed off as journalism, it’s just utter drivel. (View Comments)
I’ve always been a big fan of Paul Graham’s writing. His latest essay is about the power of being able to hold an entire program in one brain. Every manager has to read it. This excerpt really seemed familiar..
Someone has an idea for a new project, but because it’s not officially sanctioned, he has to do it in off hoursâ€”which turn out to be more productive because there are no distractions. Driven by his enthusiasm for the new project he works on it for many hours at a stretch. Because it’s initially just an experiment, instead of a “production” language he uses a mere “scripting” languageâ€”which is in fact far more powerful. He completely rewrites the program several times; that wouldn’t be justifiable for an official project, but this is a labor of love and he wants it to be perfect. And since no one is going to see it except him, he omits any comments except the note-to-self variety. He works in a small group perforce, because he either hasn’t told anyone else about the idea yet, or it seems so unpromising that no one else is allowed to work on it. Even if there is a group, they couldn’t have multiple people editing the same code, because it changes too fast for that to be possible.
I had written about the online DVD rental service Seventymm last year and how I came away rather disappointed. In the year since, they’ve been periodically contacting me about their latest offers. I always told them to call me back when they had a better offer, i.e, without a deposit, registration fee etc. They finally have a new offer now which costs RsÂ 995 for 6 months and 4 movies a month. I’ve signed up and have been using the serviceÂ for a couple of months now. Expectedly, there are good and bad aspects to the service.
First the good -
- The convenience – The USP of Seventymm and similar services is that the movies are delivered and picked up from your home, and they’ve completely lived up to this. I just have to add movies to my queue on their site and call them up whenever I want a pickup/delivery.
- Customer service -Â Whenever I request a delivery somebodyÂ drops byÂ at the promised time. They’ve been very punctual about this in the 3-4 times I’ve had movies delivered. They once mistakenly delivered a VCD of a movie when I had requested a DVD, and when I pointed out the mistake, offered an extra delivery without any additional charges. On a related note, I recommend that you always call them and not use the SMS or web modes of requesting a pickup/delivery. On the phone, you can specify what you want exactly and that prevents mistakes.
- TheyÂ provideÂ multiple ways for you to reach them, and though I haven’t tried it, you can ask them to deliver movies to your home or office.
- There have been no issues with theÂ quality of the DVDs. I was initially apprehensive about unusable, scratched discs, but that hasn’t been a problem. Perhaps because they’re still a new service?
- They’ve taken care of some of the no-brainer things I had mentioned in my previous post, like providing RSS feeds of latest movies added, better search and discoveryÂ etc.
Now the bad -
- ReliabilityÂ - This is a serious problem. Their site just throws up an ugly error page very often. It’s pretty much impossible to browse the site for titles for any decent amount of time without encountering a big “Runtime Error” page. Time to ditch ASP and use some proven technology?
- Size of collection – Pretty good blockbuster movie coverage, but not many niche movies. I guess this will improve with time.
- Broken rating system – As you’re browsing the site, every movie has a rating below the cover image denoting what I think is the average rating of the movie by other Seventymm users. The same interface allows you to specify your rating of the movie too whichÂ is displayedÂ next to the average rating, and I think they use this information in their recommendation system. The big problem here is that I see many of those little numbers next to the average ratings of movies that I haven’t even watched. Surely some bug. I don’t know how good their recommendation system is, but this bug will surely be messing up all their data.
But, at the end of the day Seventymm is a useful service to me. It’s literally impossible to watch a movie in Bangalore on weekendsÂ unless you’ve planned it well in advance, and I’m finally catching up on all the movies I’ve missed!
Google recently killed the paid video downloads service, and told the people who have bought videos all these days that they can no longer view them. It’s yet another instance which shows why DRM is such a bad idea.
By picking up its marbles and going home, Google just demonstrated how completely bizarre and anti-consumer DRM technology can be. Most importantly, by pulling the plug on the service, Google proved why consumers have to be allowed to circumvent copy controls.
To help build Basecamp, Campfire and the company’s other core applications, Hansson developed Ruby on Rails. It gives 37signals’ software a consistent look: sleek, friendly and without the extraneous bells and whistles that plague much of the bloated software sold by larger companies.
Hmmm. ok! Use RoR to build applications with a consistent sleek look.